Why You Should NOT Clean Up Your Perennial Beds in the Fall

Autumn Seedheads

We grow perennials. We hope you plant perennials. We hope you have a perennial garden to clean up.

We know! It’s a little late for this now.  (We also know there are tons of blog posts and articles and more articles out there about this topic, you can even pledge to be a lazy gardener, but you are here and so we are providing the message here as well.) The first snow has already fallen. And any cleaning up that was to be done is done. Or maybe not… maybe you have not been able to get out and do the clean up because of all the rain and then, yes, the snow too. Regardless, this is important. So if you have cleaned up your beds already, make notes for next year and if you haven’t – great! It’s okay! You have done a wonderful thing!

In your procrastination, avoidance of sloshing around in the muck or general unwillingness to deal with the situation you have done a big favor for your garden, for the ecosystem and for the landscape.

Sure. There are some things that should be done for the sake of having less work in the spring, for the sake of disease and weed management. But transforming the yard to a lunar-like landscape with all signs of life removed should not be the goal.  Here are some to-dos and some to-don’ts to consider before you head out with the blowers, mowers, wackers and hackers:

Solidago odora seedhead

Seedhead of Solidago odora, Sweet Goldenrod, can provide shelter and food for your garden’s winter residents.

Fall Garden To-Dos


  • Remove any diseased or insect-pest infested plant materials from the garden.
  • Leave the leaves
    • Why? Those favorite weather predictors the Wooly Bear Caterpillars, overwinter in the fallen leaves of autumn. As does the larva of the stunningly gorgeous luna moths, all rolled up inside sweetgum leaves. So, too, do many other insects in various stages of life.  In fact most of the creatures overwintering in your garden will be of benefit in the warmer seasons.
    • What to Do? Remove leaves from walking paths and areas where the leaves may cause harm to the landscape, but don’t bag them and send them away, relocate them to another area where they can continue to provide shelter for insects.
  • Leave hollow stems, sticks, tall grasses and plant galls.
    • Why? Same reason as leaving the leaves. These features in a ‘dormant’ landscape provide microhabitats where the insects, mammals, spiders, and reptiles are protected from severe temperature fluctuations found outside this protection. Ever wonder why you Mourning Cloak Butterflies so early in the spring? It is because they overwinter as adults in protected locations in gardens. In addition, these insects, mammals, spiders and reptiles can find limited nourishment to sustain them through the seemingly barren winter.
    • What to Do? Appreciate the structure the plant remnants add to the landscape. Notice all of the egg cases, cocoons, chrysalises, webs and mud-filled cavities in the garden.
  • Leave seed heads
    • Why? In this area of the world we have a number of birds who may overwinter in our gardens. Some of these are year-round residents, some have migrated to our ‘warmer’ south from cooler northern climes. They all need food. This time of the year insects are scarce so these birds rely on feeders, fruits and seeds for sustenance.
    • What to Do? Remove seedheads of weedy and aggressive plants to avoid them spreading throughout your garden. Leave the others for the animals.
  • Be creative!
    • Why? This gives you an opportunity to provide for wildlife while exploring your artistic and ‘thinking-outside-of-the-box’ side.
    • What to Do? If you just cannot possibly stand the look of leaves, sticks, galls, and seedheads in your garden, remove them thoughtfully and carefully. Preserve their integrity and perhaps stow them in an area not within view. Make a bee hotel (many of our hundreds of native bee species overwinter in just this  type of debris). Or just give them to ‘that’ neighbor – we all have ‘that’ neighbor don’t we? They will know just what to do with them. Composting these may be an option for you as well.
  • Wait.
    • Why? When is best to clean up the garden if you are not supposed to do it in the fall? The Spring! This is definitely a patience challenge for some of us. But waiting until the buds start to swell on the trees (typically after a few 50-degree nights) indicates that it is warm enough that many of these animals have hatched or emerged and can fend for themselves and feed the birds around.
Goldenrod Gall

A Goldenrod Gall may look like something to remove in the garden but in fact it can contain a delicious winter snack for a bird.

Fall Garden To-Don’ts


  • Don’t worry about what your neighbors will say
    • Why? Why Not?
    • What To Do? Share this information with them! Unless they are ‘that’ neighbor- then they know it already. They like butterflies and birds don’t they?
  • Don’t Mulch the leaves
    • Why? Shredded caterpillars
    • What To Do? If you do not want to leave the leaves, rake them into piles and place them where they will be least obtrusive. They will still provide habitat for those insects. Grinding them in the spring and then using them as mulch is a great idea.
  • Don’t Remove the galls
    • Why? These are filled with insect larva in a protective covering. Birds will dive into these as other food sources become more scarce.  If you are looking for galls – look at your goldenrods first, they are likely to have them. So when you are doing your minimal fall clean up looking for infestations and diseases, so not count this among the ones to dispose of.
    • What To Do? Don’t worry if the birds never find your galls. The insects inside are harmless.
  • Don’t aim for pristine
    • Why? Productive and useful is better than clean and pristine in this case. You likely have planted native plants in your landscape. Why? For their beauty and hopefully for their habitat value. This value goes beyond their spring summer and autumn displays. Their value is in more than their flowers. The leaves and stems and seeds also contribute to the success of an ecosystem.
  • Don’t Forget to Make Notes and Plan for next year
    • Why? Observing the garden in this time of the year can show you what you are missing in the way of providing for wildlife. Do you have seedheads? Do you have hollow stems? Do you have stiff stalks?
    • What To Do? Plan your spring shopping list accordingly. When buying plants look for plants that will provide well into the winter.

 

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